Connected by Canoe: Rethinking Canada One Stroke/One Conversation at a Time (Part 3 of 4)

On the advice of our friends at Parks Canada, after a very successful sojourn in Smiths Falls we put in just below Burritt’s Rapids Lock the following morning. We transitioned immediately, having lost some paddlers and gained others in our ever-evolving crew, into a moving water manoeuvering workshop.  Everyone was amazed at a) how good it felt to be back on the water and b) how much a Montreal canoe—at 12+ metres long—behaves like a high-performance whitewater solo boat. 

 
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Well, not really. But even big canoes can be tilted and angled in current in ways that allow them to ferry both forwards and backwards, pivot in current, and do eddy turns.  Khan, the manager of the Econo Lodge, after telling us that his contribution to our conversation about the future of Canada was to “Build a wall” between us and the United States (ha, ha, ha!), said he was concerned about our safety in the currents and high water.  This was a good opportunity to remind him (and ourselves) that in this nation of rivers it is travelling in currents and in waters high and low for which canoes are built!  Canada is unquestionably a nation of canoes as well.

The counterintuitive key for success in all this is to convince all the paddlers to keep their paddles in the water for stability and to learn to shift ever so slightly during manoeuvres to ensure the downstream gunwale is always tilted lower than the upstream side of the canoe.  After the bonding experience of figuring out how to productively use our time off the water, and with a couple of wonderful evening encounters in Perth and Smiths Falls immediately behind us, everyone seemed tuned-in to everyone else and it wasn’t long at all before we were performing like a well-oiled machine, knocking off complex maneuvers in the fast water below Burritt’s Rapids.  When everyone was comfortable with these moves, off we headed, downstream now, to Merrickville.

 
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Thanks to Gary Running, our advance man in the van who had been continuing detailed reconnaissance of the put-ins and take-outs. At his instruction, we landed at the Merrickville Camp Ground to avoid dangerous waters near the bridge and lock at Centertown.  With our magical little cradle of wheels from Western Canoeing and Kayaking in Abbotsford, BC, we loaded up the canoe and marched it through the campground and right through the main intersection in town en route to a put in right in front of our evening venue, Fulford Preparatory College

During this unconventional portage, we were joined by a group of very excited international students from Fulford, who had signed up for a paddle with the visiting canoe group.  And, while some of us checked in at the Baldachin Inn, right beside the school in downtown Merrickville, Jacob Rodenburg and Glen Caradus—canoe leaders extraordinaire—clicked into instructional mode and off they went with Fulford students for a magical spring paddle underneath the big train trestle just downstream from town.

 
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The common canoeing experience shared by our crew and the students from the Fulford Academy, followed by a delicious and very chatty dinner of whitefish or lasagna, was exactly what was required as preparation for our program for the evening, which was the Kairos Blanket Exercise. It was facilitated by Vanessa McCourt, a Haudenosaunee Advisor from the Four Directions Aboriginal Student Centre at Queen’s University, who had come up from Kingston, and Molly Raffan, Manager of Residence Life, also from Queen’s, who came down to Merrickville from a conference she was attending in Ottawa.  Suffice it to say that this tried-and-true educational activity is a powerful simulation of the life experienced by Indigenous People throughout North America during five hundred years of conquest.  Our experience with this iteration of the exercise was enhanced by the mix of Fulford students from all over the world and others including Michael Whittaker, Merrickville Town Crier.  Said Gary Running, “Before tonight, I was a proud Canadian.  After this, not so much.  I don’t know how I could have lived sixty-three years without knowing any of this history.”

We awoke to snow the following morning and paddled throughout most of the day, as we made our way downstream to Kemptville, through various combinations of rain, sleet, snow and, yes, hail at one point. Nasty cross winds through some of the wide points in the river, made even wider by the high water levels.  Having been on local radio and TV stations along the way and with a good presence on social media (thanks to Jessica and Micaela, our Connected by Canoe social media and communications mavens) the few brave cottagers and home owners who we did pass all waved and called out to which we would reply with a raised paddle voyageur salute and a rousing Connected by Canoe cheer.  In spite of the weather (which added a lot to the amplitude of the adventure … snow! … RIGHT ON) we knew all was well, and all would continue to be well, when we veered out of the wind and into the mouth of Kemptville Creek to find two bald eagles sitting side by side in a tree, also enjoying the spring snow shower.

 
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Our nights in Kemptville, hosted by Pat Henderson and his kids at the Kemptville Youth Centre, and in Manotick, on our own (for the only time on the trip) at RCMP Long Island Camp, were a continued delight of free-flowing conversation about our open-ended questions. We also revelled in the company of amiable companions with who we were sharing what was turning into an epic journey by canoe on one of the most beautiful urban and suburban historical waterways in the country. 

As we went about our business, Goh did his thing with his drones and cameras. Jacob and Glen led an amazing campfire, and we paddled, cooked, sang, talked, and appreciated the sun, when it finally came out on the morning of our final paddle into Ottawa.  The closer we got to our destination, the more our discussions turned to keeping the momentum of the journey going. This included a variety of suggestions including doing what we can individually and collectively to convince others individuals, organizations and municipalities to examine Connected by Canoe as a “pilot project” and try something similar in their corner of the country.  By that point in our journey, there was no doubt in anyone’s mind about the power of a canoe journey to remind us that as Canadians we’re all in the same proverbial boat and that ‘pulling together’ physically and literally is an excellent platform for or prelude to action dedicated to building a better future for all Canadians.

That was the spirit we took as participants in the so-called Express Leg of Connected by Canoe—those of us who paddled from Kingston to Ottawa—took into the Ceremonial Leg on the morning of May 11th.  To the ‘fleet of one’ Montreal canoe, we added two more voyageur-style North Canoes (thank you Jacob and Camp Kawartha), a skin-on-frame Umiaq made by volunteers at the Canadian Canoe Museum, and a very handsome Haida-style Spirit Dancer big canoe from the West Coast. 

 
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And to our 16 Express Leg paddlers, we added 32 delegates from the Community Foundations of Canada annual conference and another 30 or so other friends and paddlers from the Ottawa area, including fiddler Kelli Trottier, Ottawa Riverkeeper Meredith Brown and the chair of the Riverkeeper Board of Directors, Geoff Green, and his family, along with a variety of other iconic canoeists like Max Finkelstein, Reid McLaughlin and Becky Mason.  Max reminded everyone as we approached Pretoria Bridge that in just over a month’s time, his 150-paddler-strong South Wind Brigade will be converging on Ottawa, with similar groups arriving from the east, north and west, for Canada Day.  And, mercifully, although flooding continued to dog the poor people of Gatineau and lower down in the Ottawa River valley, for us on the Ceremonial Leg of Connected by Canoe, the monsoon, the snow, the hail, the wind and miscellaneous other divine pestilences and tests of patience and fortitude somehow stayed away on the morning of May 11th, replaced by fair breezes (even tailwinds) and sunshine!

 
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For those who participated, the legacy of Connected by Canoe will, hopefully, live on and flourish in actions inspired and enriched by the experience of pulling together on this project.  Everyone who participated in the Express Leg, having explored their open-ended question about the future of Canada in a variety of contexts and circumstances throughout the journey, has committed to providing a written answer to their question, which will be share in due course on the Connected by Canoe webpage.  This, with other content on the website linking to other legacy actions, news reports and related projects, will, we hope, keep the momentum of the Connected by Canoe Project building.  Specific outcomes from within the journey itself will be the focus of the forth, and final, part of this blog.  Coming up!